Tag Archives: Routing

Software defined WAN (SD-WAN) is really about Intelligence ..

Lets admit that most of us in the networking domain know as much about SD-WAN as an average 6th grader on sex — which is to say pretty much nothing. We take it as something much grander and exotic than what it really is and are obviously surrounded by friends and well-wishers who wink conspiratorially that they “know it all” and consider themselves on an intellectual high ground to educate us on matters of this rich and riveting biological social interaction. Like most others in that tender and impressionable age, i did get swayed by what i heard and its only later that i was able to sort things out in my head, till it all became somewhat clear.

The proverbial clock’s wound backwards and i experience that feeling of deja-vu each time i read an article on SD-WAN that either extols its virtues or vilifies it as something that has always existed and is being speciously served on a platter dressed up as something that it is not. And like the big boys then, there are men who-know-it-all, who have already written SD-WAN off as something that has always existed and really presents nothing new here. Clearly, i disagree with that view.

I presume, perhaps a trifle rashly, that you are already aware of basic concepts of SDN and NFV (and this) and hence wouldnt waste any more oxygen explaining those.

So what really is the SD-WAN technology and the precise problem that its trying to solve?

SD-WAN is a way of architecting, designing and deploying enterprise WANs using commodity Internet connections in a manner that makes those “magically” appear as a private “MPLS-like” connection. Its the claim that it can appear “MPLS-like” that really peeves the regular-big-mpls-vendors-and-consultants. I will delve into the “MPLS-like” aspect a little later, so please hold on to your sabers till then. What makes the “magic” work is the control plane that implements and enforces the network access policies (VOIP is high priority/low latency/low jitter, big data sync medium priority and all else low priority, no VOIP via Afghanistan, etc) and the data plane that weaves an L2/L3 overlay on top of the existing consumer-grade Internet links (broadband links and in a few cases the LTE/4G connections).

The SD-WAN evangelists want to wean enterprises off their dedicated prohibitively priced private WAN connections (read MPLS circuits) with commodity enterprise broadband links. Philosophically, adding a new branch should just mean shipping a CPE device (perhaps in a virtualized form-factor) that auto-magically dials into a central controller when brought to life. Once thats done and the credentials verified, the branch should just come online (viola!) and should be visible to all the geo-separated branches. Contrast this with the provisioning time (can go as high as a year in some remote locations) and the complexity it takes to get a remote branch online today with MPLS and you will understand why most IT folks have ulcers and are perennially on anti-anxiety/depressant medicines. And btw we’ve not even begun talking about the expenses and long term contracts with the MPLS connections here!

Typically SD-WAN solutions have a central SDN controller which is really a cluster of x86 devices (servers, VMs, containers, take your pick) and hence has computing and analytical horsepower much more than a dedicated HW network device. The controller has complete visibility right from the source all the way till the destination and can constantly analyze traffic and can carve out optimal network paths for applications and individual flows based on the user and application policies. In the first mile the Internet links are either coalesced to form a fatter pipe or are used separately as dictated by the customer policies. The customer traffic is continuously finger-printed and is routed dynamically based on the real time network conditions.

Where most people go wrong is when they believe that SD-WAN solutions lose control over the traffic once it leaves the customer premises or the SD-WAN edge node. Bear in mind that there is nothing in the SD-WAN technology that prevents further control over how the traffic is routed and this could perhaps be one aspect differentiating one SD-WAN offering from the other. Since SD-WAN is an overlay technology you will not have control over each physical hop, but you can surely do something more nuanced given the application and end-to-end network visibility that exists with the controller.


Its “MPLS-like” in the sense that you can, in most cases, guarantee the available bandwidth and network up time. The central controller can monitor each overlay circuit for loss/jitter/delay and can take corrective actions when routing traffic. Patently enterprise broadband connections in certain geographies dont come with the same level of reliability as MPLS and it behooves upon us to ask ourselves if we need that level of reliability (given the cost that we pay for such connections). An enterprise can always hedge its risks by commissioning a few backup enterprise broadband connections for those rainy days when the primary is out cold. Alternatively, enterprises can go in for a hybrid approach where they maintain a low bandwidth MPLS connection for their mission-critical traffic and use the SD-WAN solution for everything else OR can implement a policy to revert to the MPLS connection when the Internet connections are not working satisfactorily. This can also provide a plausible transition strategy to the enterprises who may not be comfortable switching to SD-WANs given that the technology is still relatively new.

And do note that even MPLS connections go down, so its really not fair to say that SD-WAN solutions stand on tenuous grounds with regard to the reliability. Yes i concede that there are SLAs given with MPLS that just dont exist with regular Internet pipes. However,  one could argue that you can get some bit of extra reliability by throwing in an additional Internet link (with a different provider?) thats only there as a standby. Also note that with service providers now giving fiber connections, the size and the quality of Internet links is only going to improve with time. A large site for instance can aggregate a 1Gbps Google Fiber and a 1Gbps Verizon FIOS connection and can retain a small MPLS connection as the standby. If the enterprise discovers that its MPLS connection is underutilized it can negotiate on pricing or can go with lower MPLS pipe and thereby save on its costs.

I recently read a blog which argued that enterprise broadband promising 350Mbps would mostly give only around 320Mbps on an average. Sure this might be true in a few geographies, but seriously, who cares? Given the cost difference between a broadband connection and an MPLS circuit i will gladly assume that i only had a 300Mbps connection and derive utmost pleasure any time it gives me anything more than that!

The central controller in the SD-WAN technologies amongst other things (analyzing traffic, links) can also continually learn about the customer network conditions and can predict when link qualities will deteriorate and can preemptively reroute traffic before the links start acting up. Given that the controller is monitoring paths end-to-end and is also monitoring and analyzing the traffic emanating from the branch sites there are insights that enterprises can draw that they could have never imagined when using traditional WAN architectures since in that world all connections are really only “dumb pipes”. SD-WAN changes all that — it changes how the enterprise connections and the applications running there are viewed. The WAN architecture is aligned to the application service requirements and its management is greatly simplified. You can implement complex network policies and let the SD-WAN infrastructure sweat on your behalf (HINT: intent driven networking).

So watch out before you disdainfully write off SD-WAN as a technology thats merely replacing your dumb MPLS pipes with the regular Internet connections, since i argue, it can really do a lot more than that. Perhaps a topic worth discussing some other day.

Securing BFD now possible!

Confession Time.

I am guilty of committing several sins. One that egregiously stands out is writing two IETF specs for BFD security (here and here) without considering the impact on the routers and switches implementing those specs. Bear in mind that Bi-directional Forwarding Detection (BFD) is a hard protocol to implement well. Its hard to get into a conversation with engineers working on BFD without a few of them shedding copious quantities of tears on what it took them to avoid those dreaded BFD flaps in scaled setups. They will tell you how they resorted to clever tricks (hacks, if you will) to process BFD packets as fast as they could (plucking them out of order from a shared queue, dedicated tasks picking up BFD packets in the ISR contexts, etc) . In a candid conversation, an ex-employee of a reputed vendor revealed how they stage managed their BFD during a demo to a major customer since they didnt want their BFD to flap while the show (completely scripted) was on. So, long story short — BFD is hard when you start scaling. It just becomes a LOT worse, when you add security on top of it.

The reason BFD is hard is because of the high rate at which packets are sent and consumed. If you miss out a few packets from your neighbor you consider him dead and you bring down your routing adjacency with that neighbor. This causes a lot of bad things (micro-loops, traffic storms, angry phone calls) to happen , least of which trust me, is rerouting the traffic around the “affected” node.

When BFD flaps

The cost of losing BFD packets is very high — so you really want to keep the packet processing minimal, the protocol lean, which is why folks in the BFD WG get a migraine whenever an enthusiastic (though noble) soul mentions a TLV extension to BFD or (even worse) a BFD v2.

Now when you add security, things become a waaaaaaaaaaaaay more complex. Not only do you need to process the packets at a high rate, you also need to compute the SHA or the MD5 digest for each one of those. This becomes difficult when the sessions scale even with hardware assist for BFD.  The current BFD specification for security mandates the digest to be computed for each packet that is sent (you could do something clever with the non-meticulous mode and we’ll talk about it some other day) so the spec is really useless as there is no vendor who can do that at the rate at which BFD packets need to be processed.

This also explains why the BFD specs have not moved further down on the standards track — or simply why they arent RFCs yet.

But there is a need to enhance BFD security, since thats currently the weakest link in the service provider network security. The routing and the signalling protocols have all been enhanced to support stronger cryptographic algorithms and BFD is the only protocol left thats still running without any authentication  (!!!) . I hope this doesnt inspire hackers all around the world to break into the Verizons, the Comcasts and the Tatas. Well, if somebody does, then please pass me a pointer so that i can increase my bandwidth to get all those Pink Floyd bootlegs that i have been scavenging for.

So now, we need  to secure BFD and we are stuck with a proposal that cant be used. Kind of cute, if youre not responsible for running a network.

One way to crack BFD security

The solution to this routing quagmire is however quite simple. I dribbled coffee all over my shirt when i thought of it the first time — checked if I wasnt missing out something obvious and when i was sure that it would hold ground, i pinged one of my co-authors who happened to be thinking on similar lines, and we quickly came up with a draft (after more than a year).

What we’re essentially proposing is this:

Most BFD packets are ping-pong packets carrying same information as was carried in the earlier packets — the payload doesnt change at all (used by most vendors to optimize their implementation — HINT use caching). Only when the state changes, that is, the BFD sessions go Up or Down, or a parameter changes (rarely), does the payload change. Use authentication only when the payload changes and never otherwise. This means that in most cases the packets will be sent in clear-text which can be easily handled as is done today. Only when the state changes, the digest needs to be computed which we know from our extensive experience is a relatively low occurrence event.

This proposal makes it very easy for the vendors to support BFD security, something which folks have been wishing for since long. You can get all the sordid details of our proposal here.

This is the first iteration of the draft and things will change as we move forward. While the current version suggests no changes to the existing BFD protocol, we might going ahead suggest a few changes to the state machine if  that’s what it takes to make the protocol secure. Who said securing BFD was simple ? Its perhaps for this reason that the IETF community still hasnt proposed a solid mechanism for stronger authentication of BFD packets.

You can follow the discussion on the BFD WG mailing list or keep looking at this space for more updates.

Is this draft a reparation for the sins i had mentioned at the beginning of my post earlier?

OpenFlow, Controllers – Whats missing in Routing Protocols today?

openflowThere is a lot of hype around OpenFlow as a technology and as a protocol these days. Few envision this to be the most exciting innovation in the networking industry after the vaccum tubes, diodes and transistors were miniaturized to form integrated circuits.  This is obviously an exaggeration, but you get the drift, right?

The idea in itself is quite radical. It changes the classical IP forwarding model from one where all decisions are distributed to one where there is a centralized beast – the controller – that takes the forwarding decisions and pushes that state to all the devices (could be routers, switches, WiFi access points, remote access devices such as CPEs) in the network.

Before we get into the details, let’s look at the main components – the Management, Control and the Forwarding (Data) plane – of a networking device. The Management plane is used to manage (CLI, loading firmware, etc) and monitor the device through its connection to the network and also coordinates functions between the Control and the Forwarding plane. Examples of protocols processed in the management plane are SNMP, Telnet, HTTP, Secure HTTP (HTTPS), and SSH.

The Forwarding plane is responsible for forwarding frames – it receives frames from an ingress port, processes them, and sends those out on an egress port based on what’s programmed in the forwarding tables. The Control plane gathers and maintains network topology information, and passes it to the forwarding plane so that it knows where to forward the received frames. It’s in here that we run OSPF, LDP, BGP, STP, TRILL, etc – basically, whatever it takes us to program the forwarding tables.

Routing Protocols gather information about all the devices and the routes in the network and populate the Routing Information Base (RIB) with that information. The RIB then selects the best route from all the routing protocols and populates the forwarding tables – and Routing thus becomes Forwarding.

So far, so good.

The question that keeps coming up is whether our routing protocols are good enough? Are ISIS, OSPF, BGP, STP, etc the only protocols that we can use today to map the paths in the network? Are there other, better options – Can we do better than what we have today?

Note that these protocols were designed more than 20 years ago (STP was invented in 1985 and the first version of OSPF in 1989) with the mathematics that goes in behind these protocols even further. The code that we have running in our networks is highly reliable, practical, proven to be scalable – and it works. So, the question before us is – Are there other, alternate, efficient ways to program the network?

Lets start with what’s good in the Routing Protocols today.

They are reliable – We’ve had them since last 20+ years. They have proven themselves to be workable. The code that we use to run them has proven itself to be reliable. There wouldn’t be an Internet if these protocols weren’t working.

They are deterministic in that we know and understand them and are highly predictable – we have experience with them. So we know that when we configure OSPF, what exactly will it end up doing and how exactly will it work – there are no surprises.

Also what’s important about today’s protocols are that they are self healing. In a network where there are multiple paths between the source and the destination, a loss of an interface or a device causes the network to self heal. It will autonomously discover alternate paths and will begin to forward frames along the secondary path. While this may not necessarily be the best path, the frames will get delivered.

We can also say that today’s protocols are scalable.  BGP certainly has proven itself to run at the Internet’s scale with extraordinarily large number of routes. ISIS has as per the local folklore proven to be more scalable than OSPF. Trust me when i say that the scalability aspect is not the limitation of the protocol, but is rather the limitation of perhaps the implementation. More on this here.

And like everything else in the world, there are certain things that are not so good.

Routing Protocols work under the idea that if you have a room full of people and you want them to agree on something then they must speak the same language. This means that if we’re running OSPFv3, then all the devices in the network must run the exact same version of OSPFv3 and must understand the same thing. This means that if you throw in a lot of different devices with varying capabilities in the network then they must all support OSPFv3 if they want to be heard.

Most of the protocols are change resistant, i.e., we find it very difficult to extend OSPFv2 to say introduce newer types of LSAs. We find it difficult to make enhancements to STP to make it better, faster – more scalable, to add more features. Nobody wants to radically change the design of these protocols.

Another argument that’s often discussed is that the metrics used by these protocols are really not good enough. BGP for example considers the entire AS as one hop. In OSPF and ISIS, the metrics are a function of the BW of the link. But is BW really the best way to calculate a metric of an interface to feed in to the computation to select the best path?

When OSPF and all the routing protocols that we use today were designed and built they were never designed to forward data packets while they were still re-converging. They were designed to drop data as that was the right thing to do at that time because the mathematical computation/algorithms took long enough and it was more important to avoid loops by dropping packets.  To cite an example, when OSPF comes up, it installs the routes only after it has exchanged the entire LSDB with its neighbors and has reached a FULL state. Given the volume of ancillary data that OSPF today exchanges via Opaque LSAs this design is an over-kill and folks at IETF are already working on addressing this.

We also have poor multipath ability with our current protocols today. We can load balance between multiple interfaces, but we have problems with the return path which does not necessarily come back the way you wanted. We work around that to some extent by network designs that adapt to that.

Current routing protocols forward data based on destination address only. We send traffic to but we don’t care where it came from. In truth as networks get more complex and applications get more sophisticated, we need a way to route by source as well by destination. We need to be able to do more sophisticated forwarding. Is it just enough to send an envelope by writing somebody’s address on an envelope and putting it in a post box and letting it go in the hope that it gets there? Shouldn’t it say that Hey this message is from the electricity deptt. That can go at a lower priority than say a birthday card from grandma that goes at a higher priority. They all go to the same address but do we want to treat them with the same priority?

So the question is that are our current protocols good enough – The answer is of course Yes, but they do have some weaknesses and that’s the part which has been driving the next generation of networking and a part of which is where OpenFlow comes in ..

If we want to replace the Routing protocols (OSPF, STP, LDP, RSVP-TE, etc) then we need something to replace those with. We’ve seen that Routing protocols have only one purpose for their existence, and that’s to update the forwarding tables in the networking devices. The SW that runs the whole system today is reasonably complex, i.e., SW like OSPF, LDP, BGP, multicast is all sitting inside the SW in an attempt to load the data into the forwarding tables. So a reasonably complex layer of Control Plane is sitting inside each device in the network to load the correct data into the forwarding tables so that correct forwarding decisions are taken.

Now imagine for a moment that we can replace all this Control Plane with some central controller that can update the forwarding tables on all the devices in the network. This is essentially the OpenFlow idea, or the OpenFlow model.

In the OpenFlow model there is an OpenFlow controller that sends the Forwarding table data to the OpenFlow client in each device. The device firmware then loads that into the forwarding path. So now we’ve taken all that complexity around the Control Plane in the networking device and replaced it with a simple client that merely receives and processes data from the Controller. The OpenFlow controller loads data directly into the OpenFlow client which then loads it directly into the FIB. In this situation the only SW in the device is the chip firmware to load the data into the FIB or TCAM memories and to run the simple device management functions, the CLI, to run the flash and monitor the system environmentals. All the complexity around generating the forwarding table has been abstracted away into an external controller. Now its also possible that the device can still maintain the complex Control Plane and have OpenFlow support. OpenFlow in such cases would load data into the FIBs in addition to the RIB that’s maintained by the Control Plane.

The Networking OS would change a little to handle all device operations such as Boot, Flash, Memory Management, OpenFlow protocol handler, SNMP agent, etc. This device will have no OSPF, ISIS,RSVP or Multicast – none of the complex protocols running. Typically, routers spend close to 30+% of CPU cycles doing topology discovery. If this information is already available in some central server, then this frees up significant CPU cycles on all routers in the network. There will also be no code bloat – we will only keep what we need on the devices. Clearly, smaller the code running on the devices, lesser is the bugs, resources required to maintain it – all translating into lower cost.

If we have a controller that’s dumping data into the FIB of a network device then it’s a piece of SW – its an application. It’s a SW program that sits on a computer somewhere. It could be an appliance, a virtual machine (VM) or could reside somewhere on a router. The controller needs to have connectivity to all the networking devices so that it can write out, send the FIB updates to all devices. And it would need to receive data back from the devices. It is envisioned that the controller would build a topology of the network in memory and run some algorithm to decide how the forwarding tables should be programmed in each networking device. Once the algorithm has been executed across the network topology then it could dispatch topology updates to the forwarding tables using OpenFlow.

OpenFlow is an API and a protocol which decides how to map the FIB entries out of the controller and into the device. In this sense a controller is, if we look back at what we understand today, very similar to Stack Master in Cisco. So if one has 5 switches in a stack then one of them becomes the Stack Master. It takes all of the data about the forwarding table. It’s the one that runs the STP algo, decides what the FIB looks like and sends the FIB data on the stacking backplane to each of the devices so that each has a local FIB (that was decided by the Stack Master).

To better understand the Controllers we need to think of 5 elements as shown in the figure.


At the bottom we have the network with all the devices. The OpenFlow protocol communicates with these devices and the Controller. The Controller has its own model of the network (as shown on the right) and presents the User Interface out to the user so that the config data can come in. Via the User Interface the admin selects the rules, does some configuration, instructs on how it wants the network to look like. The Controller then looks at its model of the network that it has constructed by gathering information from the network and then proceeds with programming the forwarding tables in all the network devices to be able to achieve that successful outcome. OpenFlow is a protocol – its not a SW or a platform – it’s a defined information style that allows for dynamic configuration of the networking devices.

A controller could build a model of the network and have a database and then run SPF, RSVP-TE, etc algorithms across the network to produce the same results as OSPF, RSVP-TE running on live devices. We could build an SPF model inside the controller and run SPF over that model and load the forwarding tables in all devices in the network. This would free up each device in the network from running OSPF, etc.

The controller has real time visibility of the network in terms of the topology, preferences, faults, performance, capacity, etc. This data can be aggregated by the controller and made available to the network applications.  The modern network applications can be made adaptive, with the potential to become more network-efficient and achieve better application performance (e.g., accelerated download rates, higher resolution videos), by leveraging better network provided information.

Theoretically these concepts can be used for saving energy by identifying underused devices and shutting them down when they are not needed.

So for one last time, lets see what OpenFlow is.

OpenFlow is a protocol between networking devices and an external controller, or in other words a standard method to interface between the control and data planes. In today’s network switches, the data forwarding path and the control path execute in the same device. The OpenFlow specification defines a new operational model for these devices that separates these two functions with the packet processing path on the switch but with the control functions such as routing protocols, ACL definition moved from the switch to a separate controller. The OpenFlow specification defines the protocol and messages that are communicated between the controller and network elements to manage their forwarding operation.

Added Later: Network Function Virtualization is not directly SDN. However, if youre interested i have covered it here and here.

Its time we retire Authentication Header (AH) from the IPsec Suite!

Folks who think Authentication Header (AH) is a manna from heavens need to read the Bible again. Thankfully you dont find too many such folks these days. But there are still some who thank Him everyday for blessing their lives with AH. I dread getting stuck with such people in the elevators — actually, i dont think i would like getting stuck with anybody in an elevator, but these are definitely the worst kind to get stuck with.

So lets start from the beginning.

IPsec, for reasons that nobody cares to remember now, decided to come out with two protocols – Encapsulating Security Payload (ESP) and AH, as part of the core architecture. ESP did pretty much what AH did, with the addition of providing encryption services. While both provided data integrity protection, AH went a step further and also secured a few fields from the IP header for you.

There are bigots, and i unfortunately met one a few days ago, who like to argue that AH provides greater security than ESP since AH covers the IP header as well. They parrot this since that’s what most textbooks and wannabe CCIE blogs and websites say. Lets see if securing the IP header really helps us.

When IPsec successfully authenticates the payload, we know that the packet came from someone who knew the authentication key. I would wager that that should be enough to accept the packet. The IP header is just required to route the packet to reach the recipient – its not meant to do anything else. Thats networking 101 really.

IPsec Security Associations are established based on the source and destination addresses and some L4 port information. The receiver matches the incoming packet’s against SPI and inbound selectors associated with the SA. Packet is only accepted if it came from the correct source and destination IP address. If an attacker somehow manages to change the IP header then there are high chances that it will get rejected by IPsec since it will fail the Security Policy Database (SPD) check.  So, what is protecting the header really giving us?

BTW ESP can also protect the IP header if its used in the tunnel mode. So, if someone is really keen on protecting the IP header then ESP in the tunnel mode can also be used. It should however be noted that ESP tunnel mode SA applied to an, say IPv6 flow,  results in at least 50 bytes of additional overhead per packet. This additional overhead may be undesirable for many bandwidth-constrained wireless and/or satellite communications networks, as these types of infrastructure are not over provisioned.

Packet overhead is particularly significant for traffic profiles characterized by small packet payloads (e.g., various voice codecs). If these small packets are afforded the security services of an IPsec tunnel mode SA, the amount of per-packet overhead is increased.

This issue will be alleviated by header compression schemes defined in the IETF.

I have recently published an IETF draft where i explicitly ask for AH to be retired since there is nothing useful that it does that cant be achieved with ESP with NULL encryption algorithm.

Please note that i have absolutely no complaints with AH and the claims that it makes. It does its job really well. Its just that its completely redundant and the world can certainly do with one less protocol to manage.

Retiring AH doesn’t mean that people have to stop using AH right now. It only means that in the opinion of the community there are now better alternatives. This will discourage new applications and protocols to mandate the use of AH. It however, does not preclude the possibility of new work to IETF that will require or enhance AH. It just means that the authors will have to do a real good job of convincing the community on why that solution is really needed and the reason why ESP with NULL encryption algorithm cannot be used instead.

The IETF draft that i have written aims to dispel several myths  surrounding AH and i show that in each case ESP with NULL encryption algorithm can be used instead, often with better results.